As we continue to glance ahead to the 2016 Florida State football season, Seminoles' hopes are high for a return to the College Football Playoff. After all, the 'Noles are one of the only teams in the country to return every offensive starter. That said, the prospect of a suffocating defense may have FSU supporters even more excited.
One of the reasons for that is what looks to be an exceptionally talented, yet also deep, defensive unit. And you don't get there without elite recruiting, at which Jimbo Fisher has excelled since taking over early in 2010. The six classes he's signed since becoming Florida State's head coach have an average national rank between fourth and fifth in the country. But while this year's line and secondary seem rife with talented players, the linebacker position has been a concern of late. Make no mistake: Ro'Derrick Hoskins and newcomer Josh Brown have looked very good-- but could a heretofore unrealized gem of Fisher's recruiting efforts be primed to turn this position group from a wildcard to a strength?
History could very well be our answer. Since Fisher has been at the helm to finalize recruiting classes, the top-ranked player of each class (per composite grades) has been a remarkably important contributor. The bell cows of the 2010, 2011, and 2012 classes were Lamarcus Joyner, Karlos Williams, and Mario Edwards, Jr. respectively, each of whom played a significant role in helping build FSU back to prominence and secure the 2013 national title.
Joyner was a gritty, unquestionable leader who spearheaded the defensive dismantling of Clemson in the 2013 beat-down the 'Noles administered in Death Valley. He finished with 8 tackles, a sack, an interception, and a pair of forced fumbles, one of which found the hands of Edwards, who toted it to pay dirt for a score. But Edwards really showed out in the championship game against Auburn, when three of his season-high five tackles were for a loss as he simply embarrassed the second overall pick in the subsequent NFL Draft, Auburn tackle Greg Robinson. And although Williams was still getting running back work behind Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Jr. in 2013, his second-quarter conversion on a fake punt, with FSU down 21-3, was the biggest play in recapturing momentum for the Seminoles heading into halftime.
Those were Fisher's pre-title recruiting class leaders. And here's the scary thing: they've only gotten better since. The top ranked player in the 2014 class? Dalvin Cook, who is already the greatest Florida State running back ever, and will surpass Warrick Dunn's career yardage mark this season to assume yet another place in the FSU record books. 2015's highest graded recruit? Ender of worlds, Derwin James, who finished three tackles off the team lead despite not starting until game six.
Notice something missing? Like the top dog of the 2013 recruiting class? Yeah. So has the linebacking corps. But that absence may not linger much longer. If the success of Fisher's other top recruits is any indication, it's always just a matter of time. And the time could very well be now for the highest graded recruit of 2013, linebacker Matthew Thomas (yes, he came to Tallahassee ranked just ahead of Jalen Ramsey, whom the Jacksonville Jaguars just selected with the fifth-overall pick).
After missing time for one reason or another since his enrollment, Thomas was a full participant in spring practice. And he moved extremely well. His reaction time is phenomenal, and his pursuant lateral movement is as jaw-dropping as his flat-out speed, which is really saying something. And the redshirt-junior still has two years of eligibility remaining.
With regard to Fisher's top recruits, Thomas has history on his side. And, perhaps, the future as well. All three previous class leaders (Joyner, Williams, and Edwards, Jr.) are currently in the NFL and leading very successful careers. Cook and James appear ready to do the same. Will Thomas follow suit? Time will tell.